Designs & Miracles: Two Great Comedies

 

Belmont, VT:  Flag raising at Odd Fellows memorial 6/30/12
Belmont, VT: Flag raising at Odd Fellows memorial 6/30/12

          Two comedies made a decade apart will amuse and challenge you: ‘Design for Living’ (1933) and ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ (1944). 

           ‘Design for Living’ takes the ‘buddy’ picture – a genre not yet invented – and gives it a unique twist.  Two Americans, Gary Cooper and Frederic March, have bummed around Europe for 11 years, failing to produce, respectively, salable paintings or plays.

           They clamber into a compartment on a train and immediately fall asleep side by side.  They awake to find Miriam Hopkins on the seat opposite.  (How they become aware of her, I’ll not spoil.  But it symbolises the potential for tragedy great comedy skirts.)  Both men are smitten.

           Hopkins proves to be in advertising, working for an American firm in Paris headed by Edward Everett Horton.  It looks as if Cooper and March have a competitor for Hopkins, but Horton proves to be a sort of father-substitute for all of them.

           In Bob Hope-Bing Crosby fashion, the men compete and cheat for Hopkins.  In the scene where she has to decide between them, she doesn’t.  She proposes a ménages à trois, ‘but no sex!’  The men instantly agree.

           Over the next year, Hopkins transforms her mates into successes.  Paintings sold; plays performed.  Then, the real fun begins.  The perfect ending is unlike any I know of in film – or books or real life.

           In fact, the movie’s one of a kind.

           The dialogue is witty, but not as fast paced as later screwball comedies would feature.  It is based on a Noël Coward play, adapted by the great screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

           Its director, Ernst Lubitsch, was rightly famous for his sophisticated comedies.  Here, he keeps a tight focus on his four principals who seem at perfect ease in their characters.  Lubitsch has, unjustly, had his pictures labeled ‘frothy’.  But even his Ruritanian musicals, like ‘The Love Parade’ (1929) have a bite.  His greatest comedy, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ (1941) barely conceals its underlying fury.

           The ‘Lubitsch Touch’ when applied to ‘Design for Living’ yields a strangely plausible plot.  It is less screwy most of its screwball comedy peers.  Still hilarious, though.

           If the plot weren’t unique, the way the three male characters play it certainly is.  Horton was the closest to an out gay male Hollywood featured until Clifton Webb.  The Cooper-March relationship reads bi-sexual – I think intensely, though never overtly.  Hopkins is the only plainly straight character.

           In short, it’s as complicated, funny and hot a sex comedy as has ever been filmed.

           Coward wrote ‘Design for Living’ in the late ‘20s when being poor in Paris was Bohemian.  The Depression barely figures in the 1933 movie.  Much had changed when Preston Sturges filmed ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’.

           The Hays Code (1934) brought movies the era of twin beds and toe-to-chin pajamas.  No more bouncing on double beds as Hopkins does with her co-stars.  The Depression had recast American life and World War II had at once applied an egg beater to American society whilst separating men from their families.

           So despite the fact the heroine goes out on a spree with soldiers the night before they ship out and returns married – she thinks – and pregnant – she knows – it’s remarkably chaste.  One never sees Betty Hutton with a big belly

           ‘Design for Living’ could be made today, tweaking only details like Horton’s major clients, sellers of union suits, cement and suspenders.  Not so ‘Morgan’s Creek’.

           As funny as it is without cribs – and it’s hilarious – it helps to know it was made and released when WW II’s outcome was clouded.  Americans needed farce.  From the opening lines, Preston Sturges signals a very happy ending.  How he’s going to get there – through the vagaries of small town life in wartime – is not at all clear.

           Consider his hero, the embodiment of ‘schnook’.  In 1944, young men not in uniform had to explain why to others and to themselves.  They weren’t ‘doing their part’.  Hence the Eddie Bracken’s desperation to get a doctor to certify him as fit.

           Joy riding was as rare as spare gasoline ration coupons.  Tires and many auto parts were almost impossible to replace.  So lending a girl your car one night to roam from farewell dance to bash was a sign of true devotion.

           Multiple births – triplets, quadruplets – were rarities.  The first quintuplets to survive caused an international media sensation when born in 1934.  The Dionnes continued to attract media attention well into the 1960s.

           In middle America, Bankers merited the cachet they enjoy today.  The only stinker in Morgan Creek runs the bank and the town.  He gets his.

           And, America thought of itself in terms of small towns, like Morgan’s Creek, in the middle of the continent.  What that image meant Sturges shows us in signs on stores as Eddie Bracken, the hero, walks the love of his life, Betty Hutton, down the street.  Sturges loves sight gags almost as much as split-second dialogue.

           Bracken and Sturges Stock Company regular, William Demerest, were masters of the pratfall, of exaggerated faces, of the uncomprehending take.  It was an Irish-American style mastered by them and Edgar Kennedy and James Cagney.  As Constable Kockenlocker and Hutton’s long-suffering father, Demarest leaves you breathless from laughter.

           Another of the Sturges Stock Company, Julius Tannen, bears the only Irish name in the picture.  He’s the clearly Jewish Mr. Raffarty, Hutton’s boss at the record store.  Take a good look at the Christmas turkey he brings the exiled Kockenlocker family.  (Long forgotten, Tannen had a singular role in shaping American stand-up comedy.)

           My favorite character, the one person who sees the situation clearly, is Diana Lynn, Hutton’s kid sister.  She has more good lines than anyone else, and she makes each work.  A terrific supporting actress, she more than holds her own with Demarest whose scene-dominating ability was matched by few.

           Good-hearted, generous and so funny: ‘Design for Living’ and ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ should take top places in your queue.

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